This Sunday marked what would have been the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan, the 40th President and the “Great Communicator.” Reagan’s Presidency still shapes American politics even though he left office over 20 years ago. Conservatives continue to idolize him, and even liberals (including President Obama) try to take on his mantle from time to time.
But why? What is it that made Reagan stand out?
The Great Communicator
Reagan had one of the rarest gifts: the ability to take complex political philosophy and communicate it clearly and effectively. Take Reagan’s 1964 masterwork A Time for Choosing:
Even though this speech is over 40 years old, it still stands the test of time. It encapsulates the heart of conservatism as a political philosophy in a way that is clear and straightforward. Reagan had a singular talent for taking complex political ideas and distilling them down to their essentials. Few politicians have such a gift. He didn’t need to rely on the cheap political tricks that have become a standard in political rhetoric. He was a master political communicator, and there are only a few who come close.
But what sets Reagan apart from the rest was that he was not only a great communicator, but he was a man of ideas. Far from the “amiable dunce” that was portrayed in the media, Reagan’s voluminous writings and notes from his radio addresses show that Reagan had a mind like a steel trap. He was fascinated with the details of public policy and how policies effected everyday Americans. From health care to taxes, Reagan spend years studying the details of public policy.
And there is a lesson there: Reagan did his homework. It’s not enough to be a skilled communicator: in order to be a truly effective President, you have to know the issues. Reagan had years of experience: as Governor of California, as a radio host, and as political candidate. He was able to explain the issues so clearly because he understood the issues himself in depth.
But ultimately, Reagan was more than a political icon. He was one of the instrumental figures that helped end the Cold War. It’s easy to forget that even in the 1980s, many in the West thought that the Soviet Union would be with us for decades longer. But Reagan spent much of his life fighting the evils of Soviet Communism. He had the moral integrity to call the Soviet Union what it was: an evil empire. Just as now, the foreign policy establishment didn’t have the courage to stand up for principles of human rights. But Reagan pushed on regardless.
And this tenacity helped fell an empire:
When Reagan told Gorbechev to “tear down this wall” it sent shock waves through the Iron Curtain. Ironically, the State Department, and even some in Reagan’s own Cabinet thought that those words should have been removed. But Reagan insisted they remain, and a seminal moment in Cold War history was born.
It isn’t fair to say that Reagan singlehandedly won the Cold War. But he was instrumental in the process of tearing down the Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union may have collapsed from its own internal contradictions—Reagan was right that Marxism-Leninism would be consigned to the ash heap of history—but it could have lingered on for decades.
The Optimistic American
But ultimately what made Ronald Wilson Reagan such a lasting figure in American politics is that he embodied the optimism of a nation. He saw America as that shining city on hill, and it came through in every speech. Reagan wasn’t a cynic who saw political power as its own end. He wasn’t another self-serving politician. He was an optimist who believed that America’s best days were still ahead.
And that is why Reagan is remembered so fondly today, even by his former critics.
Today, more than ever, we need leadership possessed of Reagan’s optimism and spirit. In a time when many Americans are worried about the state of the economy, the state of the world, and feeling like the American dream is slipping away, Americans are looking for someone who still sees this country as that shining city on the hill. They are looking for someone who still sees America’s best days ahead—and for whom that isn’t just an applause line.
There are few in politics that combine Reagan’s essential optimism, his knowledge of the issues, and his ability to reach out to the average American. Many have been called the next Reagan, but so far none have lived up to the reputation of the 40th President of the United States. Reagan’s cowboy boots are not easy to fill.
One hundred years after his birth, Reagan remains the paragon of modern Presidents, an almost legendary figure. But we should be careful not to let Reagan the legend overwhelm Reagan the man. There is much to be learned from Reagan’s career and Presidency, but in the end future leader should not ask “what would Reagan do” but “how would a leader like Reagan apply enduring principles to the problems of today?” (Which doesn’t exactly fit on a bumper sticker.)
So, even though it’s late, happy birthday to President Reagan. May his optimism inspire the next generation of American politicians to carry forward the principles that he defended in an amazing political life.